Rituals of an Obituarist

There is a smell that comes with them now, with writing.

Five months ago an e-mail was sent around my Cambridge college seeking people willing to write obituaries for deceased alumni. Help was required to quell the awkward backlog that had accumulated. Nobody said awkward; the words used were ‘unfortunate situation’. Deaths each year were increasing – up to a hundred at times – the unfortunate situation was a backlog, ‘a cause of distress to relatives of the deceased’. Much more than unfortunate, surely. Unfortune on unfortune, piling up in sheets in files in cabinets, and a lot of distressed eyes wanting person on paper. It’s an awkward thing, having to explain why a person isn’t on paper yet, when they have been dead for over a year. It’s an awkward thing to gather information from mourning mouths or old hands writing to memorialize a friend, and then having to explain why these tokens lie heavy, dead wood in a file.

It was during her time spent completing her Master’s in American Literature that she began writing obituaries for the college, a pursuit in which she took great pleasure, and of which she was quietly proud.

There is a smell that comes with writing them, and it is the smell of dust.

The e-mail invited potential obituarists to collect a pack of information for an alumnus already obituarized and to write a short piece using the information given. There are letters from spouses and from friends, from colleagues who record character traits, and eulogies by children and grandchildren who remember a hand on the shoulder, cherished eccentricities, the habit of encouragement, and occasionally an awkward sense of disappointment. You should try to include something from all of the sources provided, so that they feel as though ‘writing in has been worth the effort’. You should try to avoid an awkward sense of disappointment. Some people write in twice, to re-word or delete; some people write that their words should be checked by the widow before being used in the obituary. A respectful cut-and-paste. An awkward negotiation between what you know and what you know is sensitive or comforting. You should try to remember the people who will read this, who will scan down the pages until they have found their name, and who will hope perhaps to read something of themselves alongside their deceased. It’s as much about them as it is about their dead.

Before he could begin his degree he was called to join up, and he spent three weeks at Cambridge before being transferred for training in the north of England. Fortunately, in the months spent sleeping on pillbox floors and standing alert on guard duty, he discovered that three of his fellow officers were also bound for Cambridge when the war ended. The four friends would remain together throughout their service, first in Italy, and later in North Africa: they kept in regular contact for the rest of their lives. He was the joker of the group, and, with his short stature and penchant for impressions, he is fondly remembered by his friends as someone who could raise a smile in the darkest of moments.

The smell of dust.

For somebody with an over-active mind and a tendency to sleepwalk, having information about the dead on your desk while you sleep is unsettling. A pile of thirteen men on the desk, men’s lives. All male because the college only began admitting women sometime in the 1970s; you dread finding a woman among them, though you always steel yourself for the cause of death be your subject young or old. Almost all of these men came up to Cambridge in the 1940s, and almost all of these had their lives ‘interrupted’ by war, a ‘shadow’ which influenced them ‘inevitably’. Enjoyment comes when you can fit the subject into history, place them, and conjure them from their interactions with a national history. For this unique community of potential mourners, writing of the polished wood of choir stalls in chapel, or a piano accompaniment at a G&S concert can be as grounding as a shrapnel wound to the knee or Home Guard training out at Duxford. Occasionally accounts are inconsistent: you can only maintain historical accuracy, and avoid an awkward sense of disappointment.

He was forced to move to England: the rest of his family died in a concentration camp.

The smell of dust is not a metaphor and we try not to seem like we are dealing in word-play.

She relished the challenge of writing obituaries, and spent much of her summer that year teaching herself the college’s house style.

We don’t use semi-colons. We keep sentences simple and try to avoid technical jargon or the language of literary and artistic theories. Sometimes we begin with the message that somebody died on a specific date; sometimes the beginning is an outline of a life, and sometimes we start at birth. We always end with surviving relatives, and avoid an awkward sense of disappointment when there are none. Though I didn’t know it at first, there are coded phrases to be used in the event of having to avoid awkwardness. By the time I had discovered this, I found that I had slipped into using them quite naturally. Everybody is a ‘pioneer’ – in their field, in life – and ‘traditional’ masks the difficulties that come with Colonial Officers (I update to Overseas Civil Servant, dubiously) or men who have very specific views on how the Church should operate. ‘Cool exteriors’ are not always negative. We withhold judgement. We keep our thesaurus close, and develop an acute sense of whether or not a word has the right nuances based on what we think we know. We try not to use clichés, but sometimes people really have ‘lived life to the full’ or cultivated a ‘true love of life’. Picture perfect; you did it so splendidly that words are no longer right for you, that we cannot describe you now without sounding false. We are an awkward disappointment.

He had an unrivalled desire to embrace life, and, not one to consider himself aged, he spent much of his eightieth year walking Offa’s Dyke along the length of Wales.

From time to time information includes a photograph of a face. This is unsettling and threatens to throw us off-balance. Photographs cannot be useful to the obituarist: they invite assumption, and to comment on what a face might tell you would be to cross a line. We do not give our own impressions, though our own impressions are bound up in the nuances of the words we choose. We aim to channel a person and to write ourselves out. ‘It’s ridiculous,’ I say, ‘like being some sort of medium’.

Working closely with his academic colleagues and the artists in the university’s writer’s workshop, he developed his belief that the distinction between writer and critic should be eliminated, and it was at this time that he published his most famous monograph on the topic. Though his ideas received vocal criticism from some of the more traditionalist voices in the academy, he took pleasure in contention and the discussion it inspired, and continued to defend his beliefs that literature was not merely aesthetic or political, but could act as a distinctly moral force.

Up to a hundred at times. The smell of dust is striking. A memorial but not a shrine; an everyday piece of writing for the everyday papers, for everyday consumption in an everyday college report that lies around the house to be eyed here and there. It’s not a ‘here lies’, but ‘this was their everyday’. Yet there is a very pressing feeling that these things should not be rushed, that, in taking time to digest thoughts, obit writing might become more accurate; time comes to be equated with respect, the obituarist’s own strange form of mourning on other people’s behalf. Writing two, perhaps three obituaries in a day is a guilty thing. Second guesses, the fear of becoming formulaic. Rituals to ward off a feeling of the everyday, a wrangling with habit, when it is habit that we rely on to capture a person and to tell of how they lived their days out.

She was known to joke about her writing, occasionally telling friends that their lives would make wonderful obituary material.

I wrangle with habit, and formulate friends’ anecdotes into obit-speak.

There is a smell that comes with them, and it is the smell of dust. It’s not a metaphor, the packs of information literally smell of dust. I picked them all up at once and carried them around town in a plastic bag, and when you flick through them to check a birth date, a death date, a spouse’s name, to check whether you’ve mixed one man’s time at ICI up with another’s, this smell is in the air. It’s the smell of archives. It’s filing cabinets in the office, a yellow-painted room which needs re-painting, with steel filing cabinets in an alcove, with plaster flowers around the light fitting. Fitting for these dead, whose families never ask for flowers, but perhaps a donation to a cancer charity. It’s the smell of alphabetization and a waiting list to sort them, up to a hundred at times. These are not plaster people, warts and all, but neither are they sepulchral statuary. We wrangle with habit and formula, and confuse ourselves when deciding on what is proper or traditional, on how dated we should be in approaching awkward disappointment.

The smell of dust is not a metaphor, and we try not to seem like we are dealing in word-play.

The examples of obits given in the piece are fictional.